Big hero image for The Challenge Almere-Amsterdam

The Challenge Almere-Amsterdam


The Half-Ironman

Today I am going to write about my latest challenge, in which I tried something I’ve never done before. In my previous blog post about the Hamburg triathlon I already mentioned that I would like to do a bigger triathlon race than the usual Olympic distance. The next logical step is a half-Ironman distance, or 70.3 Triathlon as it’s also called. It consists of a 1.9-kilometer swim, 90-kilometer bike ride and a half marathon, which is 21.1 kilometers. In total that is 113.1 kilometers or 70.3 miles.

Sounds like a lot! Together with two of my triathlon friends, Hendrik and Niels, we contemplated when and where to do such a race. Basically there are two huge organisations that manage those triathlons, one of them is the brand of Ironman of course, and the other one is called Challenge Family. Both of them hold dozens of international triathlon events every year and are in fierce competition with each other.

We chose a Challenge Family event, partly because of the better entrance fee (180 Euros as opposed to 300 Euros) and partly because of location. Challenge Almere-Amsterdam seemed to be very convenient, because it’s not far away from our hometown of Hamburg and the Netherlands are always worth a trip. Not to mention, very flat, which is nice for biking. We signed up for the race in January, even though it wouldn’t happen until September. The three of us were really excited for it.

Now comes the preparation part. How do you ever train for a race that you can’t really imagine? There are people who write about it of course, but everyone is different. I thought I would just sign up for two more triathlons right before the big Almere-Amsterdam one, so that I can practise a bit and see where I fail and what I’ll have to optimize. Those races where again the brilliant Hamburg triathlon in July and the very small but very fun short distance triathlon of Otterndorf (german only) in August. Hamburg was amazing again, I got another best time of 2:53:08 (more than 4 minutes less than the year before) and the day was great as well. Ottendorf was also lots of fun, mainly because I got together many friends who also wanted to try and finish this very short race. It’s just 300 meters of swimming followed by a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5.5-kilometer run. My other triathlon friends and colleagues Kristian and Maddin signed up, together with Hodg and Arne, who are also good friends but never did a triathlon race before. They all finished and it was great to be together. I came in second after Kristian, with a finishing time of 1:16:54. Together with a few practise bike rides and runs, I thought I would be good to go for the half-Ironman.

Krischi, me, Arne, Hodg and Maddin right after the Otterndorf sprint triathlon
Krischi, me, Arne, Hodg and Maddin right after the Otterndorf sprint triathlon

Thankfully we have our big car to fit a triathlon bike into. So we packed all the kids and all our stuff and went to Almere, a little city 10 minutes outside of Amsterdam. The city was built on reclaimed land in the 70s, so everything was fairly new and well planned. Apparently Almere is the place where rich Amsterdam people move to when they’re tired of Amsterdam. I can’t imagine ever being tired of Amsterdam. Anyways, the event was perfectly organized, there was an hour-long introduction session where everything about the race was explained.

Anytime something like this happens, there are bound to be really stupid questions asked afterwards.
Anytime something like this happens, there are bound to be really stupid questions asked afterwards.

I sat through the whole thing. Julie and Vera got tired quickly though.

Understandably so. Half English, half Dutch triathlon jabbering — which 2-year-old will understand this?
Understandably so. Half English, half Dutch triathlon jabbering — which 2-year-old and which baby will think this is interesting?

Afterwards I could collect the swag bag. Some nice things in there. A triathlon requires a lot more organisation then a marathon — you’ll have to provide bags for the transition areas for example, because people will need to first find and then change into their new clothes for the next discipline. A detail which is important. Also, it’s nice to know where to go after the swim and bike, to not mess anything up and be disqualified or something. So I took a good look at the venue next to the sea and at the maps they had:

Swim/Run: an artificial lake to swim in and run around a couple of times
Swim/Run: an artificial lake to swim in and run around a couple of times
Bike: a long straight stretch at the sea followed by some turns, as it seems
Bike: a long straight stretch at the sea followed by some turns, as it seems

Later that day Hendrik and Niels arrived as well. They had an appartment somewhere else, but we met up and talked about the race. We walked around the city for a while, I went to a bike shop to have some last-minute repairs done, and then we all had to check-in our racing equipment already. The evening before the race, I forgot about that and had only brought my one pair of running shoes to walk around. So after I put my repaired bike on the bike racks and my two transition area bags into the garage they provided, I didn’t have any shoes left! Thankfully, the city was full of little equipment stands and I found some fitting flip-flops. They were cheap and looked horrible, so the guy at the counter sarcastically said to me: “Good choice!” — we both laughed.

My bike hanging on the rack in the evening
My bike hanging on the rack in the evening
Lots of biking equipment in those blue bags, lots of running equipment in the red ones
Lots of biking equipment in those blue bags, lots of running equipment in the red ones

Afterwards it was time to go home and eat some high-carb food, so that I wouldn’t get hungry so soon tomorrow. I ate as much as I could, which was a good decision. We had some good sleep and got up quite early, because the race would start at 8:10 AM, an hour and ten minutes after the full-Ironman people started, because it was a joint race.

When we arrived at the venue in the morning of the 13th of September, 2014, the first full-Ironman racers came out of the water already, after just about 50 minutes of swimming their 3.8 kilometers. Incredible athletes. I was quite nervous, but being there with Sophie and the two girls and joking around with Hendrik and Niels the time went by quickly and the nervousness went away. Because this was a first-time for me at this distance, I just had one goal: finishing, no matter the time in the end. That should be possible.

Also, I got some nice tattoos with my racing number
Also, I got some nice tattoos with my racing number

I decided not to wear the wetsuit I had borrowed from Kristian, because I felt the water had a good enough temperature. The first steps into the cold made me rethink that choice, but my body managed to warm itself up in there. Niels also decided against a wetsuit, but Hendrik had a good one. After a few minutes, the cannon shot was heard and the crowd went wild as we swam out there into the lake. The three of us are not the best swimmers, but I was still clearly behind the other two. I don’t mind too much, because it means that I had lots of space around me with all those fast swimmers gone. My breaststroke technique still gets me quite far with little energy, which is good for this type of endurance race.

The swimming consisted of a 1.9-kilometer lap, which had to be done twice by the full-Ironman racers. Near the end I even overtook some of the full-Ironman racers on their second laps, who could be identified by their red caps. We half-distance racers had yellow ones. The lap seemed quite long with its 700 meter stretch to the first turn, another 700 to the next one and then back again to where we started to complete the 1.9 kilometers. Coming near the end I was starting to get cold, because the weather was cloudy and apparently I didn’t go full speed. I was happy to be done after about 47 minutes. Awake and fresh I felt, climbing out of the water. There was Sophie with the girls! A kiss through the gate, and then running into the garage to get my blue bag and put on the biking gear.

The bike racks were almost empty, because I was quite slow at swimming. But I didn’t notice this with all the adrenaline, Sophie told me afterwards. My bike was still there and I got up and biked away. It feels good to sit on the bike after a swim, because you use different muscles and a different body position. Unfortunately, after about 5 minutes I realized I had a flat tyre! Thankfully it was the front tyre and I had all the repairing equipment with me, including a new tube and a CO2 cartridge to fill up the tube quickly. It took me a while, because I had never handled such a cartridge before, but within about 8 or 10 minutes I was done. It was a bit sad to see all the other contestants pass me by. They swam even slower than me, and now they’re gone. There is one upside, though, I could now overtake all of them easily. Every couple of minutes I sacked another one.

The first 40 kilometers were actually quite hard. The course is flat, but during that long straight stretch you could see on the map above we had straight winds from ahead of us. I only managed to go at about 25 km/h. Afterwards I heard some guys from Russia joke that the Dutch people should have turned off those giant wind power wheels, suggesting those were the reason for the strong head-winds.

That bike looks a bit too small for me, I noticed from this picture
Me, being pushed away by those wind engines

When that stretch was done, it got really nice. Winds from the side or behind, the clouds went away and it was really sunny and warm now, and there were even a few people cheering in the small villages we passed through! I had a power gel every 40 minutes or so, because I heard that’s the way to go. It worked well, I felt really good. The 90 kilometers didn’t seem like a lot, and as I came to the point where the course split between the half and full-Ironman racers, I thought I could manage to go another lap and do the whole 180 kilometers of an Ironman race. But I had to turn the other way and go back to the transition area. 3:23 hours was the time I needed for 90 kilometers. I think that’s quite alright for my first try.

Putting the bike back on the now very full rack, I got to see Sophie again at that same place, steal another kiss and go into the garage a second time to grab the red bag and change into my running gear. A half marathon is next.

This is what I can do quite well. The course was a 7-kilometer lap around the lake in which we were swimming before. I had to run the lap three times, the full-Ironman racers six times. It was cool, because the last 2 kilometers of the bike course where located along the running lap, so after my first lap I could see the first Ironman bikers come “home”. And during the other laps there were lots of them to see. After half of the second lap I met Hendrik! He was one full lap ahead of me, not to my surprise, and was struggling now. But we decided to run his remaining 3 kilometers together and talked a lot. It was really nice. Then he finished and I had to go for another lap. It was no problem at all. I kept a good pace and had enough motivation because Sophie was standing there after every lap. One time we kissed and a Dutch guy in the crowd saw this and exclaimed loudly:

“Gij zult niet te kussen, je moet snel lopen!”

I had probably just heard that joke
I had probably just heard that joke

I don’t speak Dutch, but it’s quite similar to German, so I understood the gist: “You should not kiss, you shall run!” People around us laughed. And I ran! 2:03 for the half marathon after having done all that swimming and biking is a time I can live with. When I crossed the finish line, it felt really, really good. Another new challenge was mastered!

Head held high, arms in the air. Great. Right after the finish line there were lots and lots of helpers. One of them came right up to every finisher and asked how we were doing and if we needed anything. What a nice service! The lady that came up to me then showed me the food and drinks and pointed towards the building where there was supposed to be even more food. I met Hendrik and Niels right there and then explored the buffet inside. It was no joke, they had a serious restaurant quality selection of warm food and cold drinks in there. The other triathletes were as amazed as I was. What an event!

Then we received some finisher’s shirts and took this photo:

We’re all done! 6:26:03 in total, Niels needed 6:01 and Hendrik 5:45.
We’re all done! 6:26:03 for me, Niels needed 6:01 and Hendrik 5:45.

By the way, the finishing area looked like this:

Not a bad event at all
Not a bad event

We relaxed a bit and had a good afternoon. Grabbed some burgers together in the evening and drove home the next morning. I started thinking about full Ironman races. I think I could do one! :-)

This is a video of that day, put up by the Challenge organisation. It’s great to get a glimpse of the route and atmosphere. Also, at 0:41 you can see me! Black suit, yellow cap, 1026 on my upper arm.
This was part of the set of professional photos and cost only about 60 Euros. A steal! But who cares, I only do this once for the first time
This certificate was part of the set of professional photos which cost only about 60 Euros. A steal! But who cares, you only do this once for the first time. And that’s exactly what they’re counting on ;-)

Thanks for reading this, everyone! I can only recommend trying a triathlon as well. It really is lots of fun and feels great to finish.

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